Some thoughts on Shakespeare and theatre

I’ve been reading through the ~200 page introduction to a full collection of the works of Shakespeare that I picked up cheap at the used bookstore. It’s edited by a G.B. Harrison.

For the past three hundred years Shakespeare has been regarded as the greatest writer in the English tongue, and since it is unusual for one generation to worship the gods of its fathers, it follows that he has been admired for very different reasons, and that his plays possess an enduring vitality. This quality in art we call universality. (p.3)

“Unusual for one generation to worship the gods of its fathers” is true, in so many ways.

Shakespeare goes to great trouble to make the story [Romeo and Juliet] entirely respectable. The disaster which comes to them is not their fault or of their making. It comes because of the stupidity of their parents; and in Shakespeare’s plays most parents, especially fathers of daughters, and incredibly stupid. (p.6)

I wonder if our contemporary sitcom buffoon father owes some of his legacy to Shakespeare? If so, too bad.

To be honest, I am really only familiarizing myself with more of Shakespeare’s works because I want to read Girard’s commentary on them called A Theatre of Envy. It isn’t hard to see right away though why Girard and Shakespeare would get along nicely:

Shakespeare was one of the very few Englishmen who saw that behind the pomp [of monarchy] lay the intolerable burden:

Upon the King! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the King!
We must bear all. Oh, hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing!
(From Henry V)

Shakespeare really knew that being the king was a terrible and dangerous thing.

I loved this description of urban London in the 1600s. This sort of thing can still be found on Times Square.

“At one time, in one and the same rank, yea, foot by foot and elbow by elbow, shall you see walking, the knight, the gull [sucker], the gallant, the upstart, the gentleman, the clown, the captain, the apple squire [pimp], the lawyer, the usurer, the citizen, the bankerout [bankrupt], the scholar, the beggar, the doctor, the idiot, the ruffian, the cheater, the puritan, the cut-throat, the high-man, the low-man, the true-man, and the thief; of all trades and professions some, of all countries some.”
(A quote from “Dekker” on p.17)

The opposite of this would be the demographic of shoppers at Costco or, lamentably, at a many a church worship service.

Oh, the dashed dreams of those in higher ed!

The universities, then as now, were the main avenues to preferment for the clever boy, but the prizes were far fewer than the applicants, and many young graduates who began with the highest ambitions had to content themsleves in the end with insignificant and degrading occupations. (p.31)

All you young students complaining about your debt or trying to occupy Wall Street or what have you – realize that this above was written in 1948, concerning ~1600!!!!

The ballad in doggerel verse set to some well-known tune was, however, the most popular way of circulating news. (p.32)

Apparently the premise of the Colbert Report was an old idea.

What I found perhaps most interesting was the contrast between old-school theatre and our contemporary art. For Shakespeare, if you needed a sunset, you had to describe it with words. For us, we have elaborate lighting and set dressing. Then, the audience crowded very close to the stage, all in daylight. Now, the house is dark and the curtain is drawn up (START) and put back down (OK, STOP). A modern play on Broadway does this all masterfully, but it really is a very different art.

Put simply, modern theatre is like cinema. A play is a “live” movie. Paul Simon asks, “Is the theatre really dead?” I say, that if it is striving to be film, then probably. Film-making will always have far greater tools at it’s disposal or storytelling and suggestion. Perhaps what theatre needs to do is to play to it’s strengths – that of personal engagement (at least via close proximity) with others. It seems to me the best thing to do with theatre, as with folk music, is to PLAY in it yourself! Three cheers for community theatre! Not because the shows are so great to watch, but because they are so fun to BE in and fun to share with your friends (be they on stage or in the audience). It seems to me that is the direction it ought to be cultivated.

My wife and I met in a pit orchestra. The only thing I remember for fourth grade was a silly play we took a week to put on. (Not the retarded Christmas play where I was “Elf #5”, but the one in the classroom with all the terrible puns.) Last year, some friends came over to our house and we read through Henry V with assigned parts. That sort of thing can bring people together in ways that watching a movie never will. Lets have more of that please.


Why context matters: Negative space

Every word, every command, every affirmation, has an implied “No” alongside it. But unless the nature of the negative is also articulated with the word, (and it often is not), then the “No” comes wholly from the context – a context invisible to distant hearers and all but buried to readers centuries later. But the context was the shape the original message was poured into. It gives the word shape and meaning beyond it’s fuzzy interior.

This is why it is important to know that when early Christians said, “Jesus is Lord”, it was also implied, “and Caesar is NOT.” If you were a farmer in early Mesopotamia, your temptation would be idolatry toward some agricultural fertility god. To say, “God is God”, or, “YHWY is God”, implied, “and Baal is not.” The word is the same, but the meaning is expanded in one direction or another. The same is true for us as well. When we say, “Jesus is Lord”, we must also add, “and the State is NOT.” The government, the president, congress, the judiciary – their power is highly limited. They cannot save us. They cannot do jack squat. They are not Lord. Jesus is.

Yesterday, my wife and I took all our children to the local science center. In one area are tables populated with brain-teaser puzzles. On of them asked to move one rectangular piece from a group of blocks to make a square. It seems impossible and I was stumped until my wife showed me the answer. The instructions for the puzzle contained a trick question. You assume that you are supposed to make a square with the pieces, which is, in fact, impossible. But a square can be made in the EMPTY space between the pieces when configured a certain way. This got me thinking about negative space – an idea used not so much in geometry as in architecture and graphic design.

This morning then, I listened to a sermon that dealt with the brief and rather vague instruction in Ephesians 6:4 to bring up our children in the “instruction of the Lord”. This was contrasted with the prevailing culture in the city of Ephesus (part of modern-day Turkey) at the time it was written. This is the context and any “do this” present has a “and not this” surrounding it, whether verbalized right then or not. Ephesus was subject to a strict Greek caste system and the exposing of infants was widely practiced. For those receiving this word, one of the first things to come to mind would have been to resit the temptation to infanticide. This may seem like the most ridiculous sort of no-brainer to us today, but they might think our own propensity to accomplish the same through abortive pregnancy of similar obviousness. But their context is not ours. Our modern age has raised egalitarian individuality as the chief sacred right. Disciplining our children, especially corporeally, is highly unfashionable right now. It was rarely this way in the past and will not be again some day, but for us right now, this is our temptation.

The Bible doesn’t work as a manual for parenting or marriage or business or much else because so much of  the really useful advice is implied from the negatives of the context. We don’t have that information – nor would it actually be that helpful if we did! What we need is wisdom to figure things out on our own – both individually and in community. You know what he says about wisdom:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. (James 1:5)


Poems for (from?) Pierre

I took my notebook to the concert and ended up scribbling these down during the show.


Confined to six strings
An aged man
Finds joy in a long encounter
with occasional glances to a woman outside


The magic of a live performance:
If it sounded exactly as in the studio,
then what a failure!


The image of youth
Still present in the veins
and stretch of the neck.
Like a child stretching forth
to bite a juicy apple from a branch
he may not reach.
Reaching forward to sing forth Romance,
Like it might walk through the door if you said the right words.


There’s nothing new under the sun.
So mine the old, where the diamonds have been growing
for more generations than could come
from a thousand summer wedding nights.


Who is the innovator? The one who does it first. What is it? Not some undreamed novelty, but what nearly everyone was thinking all along but could never get past their lips or out to their fingertips.


Love songs give lip service to love. Scholars give lip service to love songs but would understand more if they would open their mouths, close their eyes, and repeat after me:

Oh ma mignonne y venez vous ?

On seeing Pierre Bensusan again in Spokane on 6-3-2012

On Sunday I got to hear Pierre Bensusan play and Lindaman’s in Spokane. The food was wonderful. The Old Fashioned put others to shame. Pierre played fantastically. I overheard his roadie telling someone that this was the best performance of the tour so far. It was a really small joint holding only about fifty folks so nobody was far from the action. Husband-wife guitar-vocal duo Sidhe opened with some really great tunes as well. A good friend of mine came with so the whole event doubled as an engaging road trip as well.

This time, I didn’t care about the guitar technique as much as it’s been years now since I’ve treated the instrument with any discipline. Instead, I thought a lot about growing older, romance and love songs – wondering if the old ones are maybe the best already – so just sing those!

Early on, Pierre took a shot at critics of his style and guitar tuning:

“The first guy who accidentally tuned his guitar to DADGAD invented ‘New Age’! – Where the guitar plays all by itself. You can even go to the beach and it’s still there playing.”

I took my notebook and ended up hacking some poems together during the show. I guess I’ll put them in the next post.

In the meantime, can “weariness” be communicated through a composition? Yes.


No room for magic in B.B. Warfield’s theology

Over here, Leithart gives criticism of B.B Warfield’s particular flavor of Reformed theology. Thought I was only familiar with about half of the points of discussion myself, the questions Leithart raised ring true to some of my own troubles with Warfield over the years.

Warfield, as far as I can tell, is the chief source of anti-charismatic sentiment within the Reformed tradition. I think it goes hand in hand that he is also, against Calvin, not much of a sacramentalist either. To have even a moderately high view of the bread, wine, and water of baptism, one has to (though he may be loth to say it this way) ascribe some sort of magic powers to them. Warfield will have none of that, nor anything else that smells a bit magical, be it strange tongues, healings, and the like. He is quick off the blocks to all but dismiss much of the book of Acts at the earliest opportunity. Virtually all meaning the Lord’s table and the baptism waters may play in the life of a Christian are naturally obliterated and chalked up as collateral damage to his view of the Spirit working without mediation.

I say no. The Triune God works VIA a great number of persons and things, even though He doesn’t have to. In fact, it seems that He delights to do so at times – for his own reasons.